Deborah Levy … Shedworker
Deborah Levy (born 1959) is a British playwright, novelist, and poet. She wrote and published her first novel Beautiful Mutants, in 1986. Her second novel, Swallowing Geography, was published in 1993 by Jonathan Cape, while her third, Billy and Girl, was published in 1996 by Bloomsbury. Swimming Home was published in 2011 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012 among other awards. Levy published a short story collection, Black Vodka in 2013. Her novel Hot Milk was published in 2016 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016.
She was interviewed by the Guardian in October 2016 for their My Writing Day series.
“Some years ago, when my marriage was on the rocks, we sold the family house and I ended up living in a small flat. I wrote wherever I could and became accustomed to what Elena Ferrantehas described as being happy and unhappy at the same time. Except, in my case, it was more like being happy and extremely miserable at the same time. This was a strange emotional climate to live in – like blazing sunshine with an icy wind. Perhaps it resembled living in Scandinavia, but without the delicious herrings and crispbreads.
So then my friend, Celia, who is in her early 80s – she’s an actor and book-seller – came to the rescue. “You need a study,” she said. I had to admit she was right. She pointed towards the shed at the back of her garden. It was where her husband, the late, great, beloved poet Adrian Mitchell sometimes wrote, and it was built under an apple tree. I have rented it from her ever since. It’s freezing in winter and sweltering in summer, but I have grown to love my writing shed in every season. I have a writing desk, a few bookshelves, lamps, heaters, my desktop Mac computer, a writing chair, which I have covered with a sheepskin fleece for extra warmth—and there are also a few cobwebs and spiders.
Most days I cycle to the shed at 8am after I have seen my daughter off to school. To avoid starting work, I sometimes stop for coffee at a nearby cafe. I am very fond of the morose Italian waiter, and always ask him: “How are you today?” He stops to think about this, and always replies: “I don’t know.” As far as I’m concerned, his answer is an example of magnificent writing. It sets me up for the day.
When I begin writing a novel, I usually know where I want to get to, I just don’t know how to get there. I plan a route and follow my directions. Sometimes this works well. Yet, it’s when I detour from the map and get lost that the writing starts to open its eyes. In case you think I like getting lost, I should tell you that I resist it with all my will. This is always a futile battle. Eventually I surrender to the unknown route, write for a few hours and take a look at the new view.
My current writing mantra is a quote by EM Forster: “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” This applies to the life of a novel as well as any other kind of life. Come to think of it, the life that is waiting for us might be worse than the life we have planned.
This is such a terrifying thought that I’m going to nip across the garden and make tea in Celia’s kitchen. If I can find the sweet, shy house cat, I will try and persuade her to sit on my lap in the shed. This cat knows that I adore her, so she takes advantage of my love and begs for snacks. Yes, procrastination is part of the writing day and I do enjoy browsing Celia’s vast collection of books.
Now I’m back in the shed (one mug of tea, no cat) and I’m looking at some of my journals, written years ago. To my surprise, I find that I have scribbled down ideas and thoughts on some of the themes I am writing about now. As far as I’m concerned, the writing life is mostly about stamina and the desire to give my complete attention to language. And I don’t just mean literary language. I am never indifferent to the way someone might say “goodbye” or “oh my God” or “I don’t know”. To get to the finishing line requires the writing to become more interesting than everyday life. This is not as easy as it sounds, because I have never found everyday life boring.
At the end of the day, I read through whatever I have written and figure out the various problems I will need to solve in the morning. After I’ve locked up the shed, I cycle home to tell my children all about the way Celia’s cat grooms her paws.